MTI // 2008 // 80 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // July 24th, 2009
Some games can be deadly.
Move over, Mr. Seagal (if you can). Take a seat, Mr. Snipes. There's a new direct-to-DVD action hero in town, and he's at least as bad as you guys are.
When I say "bad," of course, I'm talking about the traditional use of the word, the one that's synonymous with "terrible," "awful," and "dreadful." I don't mean, "so good he's bad" or "so bad he's good," or cool bad, as in "They say that cat Shaft is a bad mother." This guy is really bad, and his "why is this even on DVD?" film, worse.
I'm talking about one Johnny Alonso, TV veteran (Dawson's Creek and One Tree Hill, mainly) and a pleasant-enough seeming fellow who had the misfortune to have gotten himself cast as a former FBI agent in Safehouse, a debacle of a no-budget "action" movie.
In a confused and confusing opening scene, Alonso's Agent Cooper O'Neil sees his partner slaughtered after something or another goes wrong with some indecipherable operation in what appears to be a waterfront bar. We know this is a tough bar because everyone is dressed like either the Gorton's fisherman or a lumberjack, and they -- surprise! -- eye the two doofuses in suits suspiciously. This bar is so tough that all the patrons are smoking, something I thought was pretty much outlawed in public places now, but I guess that's just to ram home the notion that this is a place of outlaws. It's also a big point in the scene: When Cooper's partner needs to communicate that their mission is terminated, he surreptitiously passes a matchbook with the word ABORT written in big block letters. When the inevitable gun battle erupts, Cooper finds himself outside in a torrential rainstorm standing over his mortally wounded cohort -- still puffing on his smoke. As a former smoker, I'd like to note that the physics of keeping a cigarette lit during a monsoon are all wrong here.
Flash forward a year, and Cooper is happily retired, running a charter boat company with Emily, the daughter of another dead partner. One day, who should wash ashore but yet another dead agent friend of Cooper's -- evidently, the attrition rate in "the bureau" is appalling and befriending Cooper is on par with sleeping with the swim coach at Camp Crystal Lake. Rather than taking time to grieve or express surprise, Cooper rifles the guy's pockets and finds a computer jump drive. Instead of just plugging it into his laptop, he immediately brings it to his friend, a houseboat-dwelling computer genius named Teaberry, who's colorful, eccentric, and gay, although he doesn't dress like a lumberjack or a fisherman. Teaberry figures out that the jump drive contains a code that will make the multi-billion dollar military payroll vulnerable for stealing by a cruel, mean, and wealthy genius type, Salvatore Antonio Moffa (Robert Miano, Donnie Brasco).
Moffa, naturally, sends his numerous goons to retrieve the jump drive. The henchpeople find out about Teaberry after hearing a clumsy voice message left on a fax machine that tips them off that he's got the valuable $25 storage device. The baddies rough Teaberry up and bruise him, but don't think to check his pants, where he has cleverly hidden the drive.
Cooper calls in his friends from "the Bureau" led by agent Samantha, who has a "past" with Cooper. This causes no end of consternation for Emily, even though she had no interest in Cooper up to now -- "He's not my boyfriend!" she later pouts when she's about to be mildly tortured by the bad guy. After a lot of needless fussing on both sides, the jump drive ends up with the good guys, and Samantha hides it in her bra for safekeeping, apparently not realizing that the drive had spent the weekend nestled in Teaberry's crotch. So, yes, folks, we have an FBI that uses matchbooks and magic markers to communicate secret messages and favors underwear as the best hiding place for classified media. You'll also be happy to know that the Feds don't blow your taxpayer dollars and send a helicopter to retrieve agent Samantha and the jump drive that's key to a multi-billion dollar heist, instead leaving her to fend for herself with only her bra, Cooper, and a couple of other agents for protection.
Despite his retirement making him a private citizen -- the type that the FBI would normally whoosh away from a criminal operation -- Cooper is automatically re-upped for duty and given a gun. To say Alonso makes for a non-traditional action hero is an understatement. With his small, slight frame, he makes David Spade look like The Rock. We all know that there's nothing like a gun to turn a little man into a big man, but Cooper has this bizarre tendency to toss the gun aside and go mano-a-mano with thugs the size of Mount Rushmore. Even though these fight scenes look like a duck taking on a bear, Cooper's expert FBI training, and his opponents' inability to deliver a line of hackneyed dialogue and karate kick at the same time, end up propelling our little guy to victory. As an actor, Alonso makes you long for Steven Seagal's Hamlet. He's supposed to be spouting cool and witty dialogue, but the script leaves him hanging. His lines are delivered with an awkwardness that suggests he's reading them from a hidden cue card -- phonetically.
The only other "name" in the cast is Thomas Calabro, who played "Michael" during the entire run of Melrose Place and has done little since. Here, he plays a computer guy working for the evil one, a nervous fellow who spends his entire time on screen mopping his sweaty brow with a red bandana. I guess this is supposed to be a character trait and signal that the guy is a nervous worm, but all I could think was how wet and clammy that bandana must have been.
John Poague directs as though he's never seen an action movie. Jump cuts are eschewed in action scenes and are saved for things like people walking or a boat sailing. The various locations -- including the wealthy bad guy's compound -- look they were shot in someone's modest suburban home. To make unnecessary scenes look cool, Poague employs the cheesiest "digital effects" this side of 1989. There is no sense of story, pacing, or urgency. This is the lowest-tech FBI thriller I've ever seen, and that includes the Efrem Zimbalist Jr. series from the '60s. No helicopters or gadgetry for these protectors of the Constitution. To protect the house where Cooper and the other agents have set up their operations, they have one guy in black t-shirt and jeans patrolling the grounds with pistol. But that's OK: In the interest of a fair fight, the wealthy villain sends out three similarly dressed and armed muscle guys on foot to bring down the Bureau's operation -- successfully, I might add! Don't worry, our guys get 'em back, with the scrawny Cooper infiltrating the evil one's high security compound by hiding behind a tree and Samantha providing back up by disguising herself with a big, floppy hat. It's good to know someone was paying attention during the Lucy and Ethel seminar at FBI school.
The disc is a screener, and to make sure I don't make my fortune by bootlegging it all over the world, the words "For Promotional Use Only" pop up every five minutes or so. The video and audio are acceptable. The only extra on my disc is a trailer, and there are no subtitles, set-up options, or chapter stops. I'm guessing the retail version will have more than what's here.
The first rule of Make an Action Movie Club should be: know the limits of your budget. Don't make a movie about a battleship if you can't afford a rowboat. A while back, I reviewed a film called Ten Dead Men, which worked largely because its makers didn't try to fake its miniscule budget. Safehouse purports to be a high-tech thriller, but it can't overcome its no-budget origins. Even when you take the cheesiness of the production out of the equation, you're left with a badly written and acted mess.
Oh, yeah, guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 80 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R